An attorney representing two Muslim students at Edina High School filed a complaint Monday with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights after the students were suspended for using a pro-Palestinian slogan while protesting the Israeli war in Gaza.
The two students — Somali American girls who participated in a student walkout in October — were given a three-day suspension for chanting, "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free."
Bruce Nestor, a Minneapolis attorney who volunteers for Palestine Legal, an organization that protects civil and constitutional rights of people in the United States who speak in support of Palestinians, emphasized the context of the walkout. He said Edina schools had released a statement after Oct. 7 acknowledging Jewish students' pain without acknowledging Muslim students' pain — and issued no statement after the Israeli bombing campaign began in Gaza.
In the complaint, Nestor is asking the district to rescind the suspensions and strike them from the students' records, and to issue clear guidelines that pro-Palestinian speech will not be suppressed.
"This is a preliminary action," Nestor said, not ruling out a lawsuit. "The real reason for doing this, for doing something publicly, is to make clear that we are here and available to defend students across Minnesota who desire to engage in speech in support of the Palestinian people and that we will not stand for a double standard that punishes Muslim students."
The slogan, "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free," is considered by many Jews to be antisemitic. They cite Hamas using the slogan to call for Israel's destruction and the genocide of Jews in Israel and Palestinian territories. U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the first member of Congress of Palestinian descent, was censured by the House this month after using the slogan in a video about the war.
But the meaning of the slogan, which refers to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, can shift depending on who is defining it. Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, called it "an aspirational call for freedom for the Palestinian people who are not free, who are living in an occupied territory."
The district issued a statement Monday toeing the line between supporting students' First Amendment rights to free expression and prohibiting discrimination against students based on their religion or any other basis protected under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
While the district declined to comment on specific allegations, citing student privacy, the district condemned both Islamophobia and antisemitism.
"Students do not have unfettered First Amendment rights while on school property and students do not have a right under the First Amendment to engage in speech that is substantially disruptive or that violates District policies," the district statement read.
At Monday's news conference, Nestor and Hussein also condemned Islamophobia and antisemitism while arguing the slogan that resulted in the suspension was not, in fact, antisemitic.
An Instagram account that organized the walkout, @ehswalkoutforpalestine, posted a response to the district's disciplinary measures: "Our intention was never to target any religious or ethnic group."
Hussein said that since the war began his organization has fielded a large number of complaints about bullying in public schools. He worried that incidents such as in Edina may lead to students feeling unable to express themselves in a school setting.
Ethan Roberts, deputy director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, drew a line between the intent of the slogan and the effect. The slogan's effect, he said, is to make most members of the Jewish community feel unsafe and ostracized. He's heard from large numbers of Jewish parents in Minnesota whose children are experiencing antisemitism in schools, often specifically related to this slogan.
"Have you ever asked someone who is straight whether something is homophobic or not?" Roberts said. "We all trust that communities can define for themselves what hatred against them looks like, and the vast majority of Jews understand this to be hateful. There are other ways to express support for Palestinians that don't invoke the genocide of Jews. It's almost like it's intentionally hurtful. If I knew language I used is hurtful to other people, even if it's not my intent, I'd avoid using that language."